EXECUTIVE EDUCATION | In 2002, Michael Fleming, executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation, helped launch the midcareer fellowship for government officials that the Kennedy School runs in concert with the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute. But it was only after becoming a fellow himself in 2005 that Fleming was able to fully appreciate the value of the program.
Following his recommendation, in 2007 the Bohnett Foundation contributed $500,000 to endow the program, which has grown from 3 fellows in 2002 to 16 in 2009, and covers about half the participation costs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual students.
Each year, two classes of fellows come to the Kennedy School for the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program. The dozen or so Bohnett fellows are part of a group of some 70 students overall. “We wanted our fellows to be integrated with a larger class of government attendees, who may not be gay or lesbian, so that each group could learn from the other’s experience,” says foundation head David Bohnett, a Web entrepreneur who became a major philanthropist in 1999 after selling GeoCities.com, the social networking company he cofounded, to Yahoo! for $3.6 billion. “After interacting with our fellows, other participants in the program told me they had learned quite a bit about the struggle that gay and lesbian people had for equality.”
Bohnett backed the fellowship program because he feels that leadership training is one of the best ways of advancing the civil rights goals he cares about most, particularly those involving marriage and family equality for gays and lesbians. “Not only was the Kennedy School eager to partner with us,” he says, “they also had the strongest curriculum.”
“The school does an amazing job of packing those weeks with as much information as you can handle, but not more than you can handle,” says Fleming. “That’s a real science.”
Evan Low, a city councilor and vice mayor of Campbell, California, and a 2007 Bohnett fellow thinks the program was greatly enriched by the diversity of its participants, “who worked across party lines, across regional, cultural, and generational boundaries, and across issues of gender and sexual orientation. By being put in a room for three intensive weeks with individuals who don’t necessarily share the same values as we do, we were forced to deal with each other.”
Low made friends, for instance, with a man whose religion defined marriage as between a man and a woman. By the end of the session, this man said that Low shouldn’t have any fewer rights than he and his wife did.
“I didn’t come away from the program with specific tools so much as a general outlook that is helpful in almost everything I do in public life,” Low says. “Beforehand, I often regarded the opposition as closeminded people that I could simply write off. I now realize that we all have equal say, even though our perspectives may be different. There is no right and wrong; there are just opportunities to educate one another.”